New Orleans Jazz Orchestra honors drummer-composer James Black
Due to popular demand, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) will perform a reminder of a tribute to James Noir Friday January 14 at the New Orleans Jazz Market. The doors will open at 8 p.m. for the free concert.
James Noir was an accomplished drummer and composer capable of playing everything from complex modernist jazz to gritty funk. He was little known outside of New Orleans and never recorded an album under his own name. Noir had a reputation for being an irascible conductor, intimidating as much with his personality as with his skills.
Born in New Orleans on February 1, 1940, Noir was steeped in second-line rhythms typical of the city from an early age, and by the early 1960s was already engaged in session work for people like Fats Domino. However, his main interest was jazz, and Black performed in a group with young Ellis Marsalis on piano and Nat Perrilliat on sax. Nat Adderley, along with his brother Cannonball, used all three in his 1962 session In the bag, to which Noir contributed to two compositions.
The following year, Marsalis burned an underrated modern jazz album titled Monkey puzzle. This time out, Noir dealt with four of the seven compositions, including the complex 5/4 piece “Magnolia Triangle”, which is perhaps his greatest work.
Noir continued to perform with Yusef Lateef and Lionel Hampton in the mid-1960s. However, his career was interrupted by a stint at the Angolan State Penitentiary where he performed in a prison orchestra with a blues pianist. James Booker and saxophonist Charles Neville.
At the end of the 1960s, Noir played R&B gigs around New Orleans and in 1968 rose to prominence on the Scram label as a house drummer. He performed on Eddie Bo’s “Hook and Sling,” helping make it one of New Orleans’ funk greats, and quickly took his place alongside Smokey Johnson and Meters Modeler Ziggy as the one of the best funky drummers in town.
During this time, he continued to play jazz in parallel with the ELM Music Company group of Ellis Marsalis. They took up residence at Lu and Charlie’s from 1972 and became local favorites.
During the 1970s, Noir also led his group, the James Noir Ensemble, which often featured his longtime girlfriend “Sister Mary” Bonette on vocals. He made several attempts to record a full album, including once for the Sound of New Orleans label and once at Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint studio, but the sessions never progressed beyond a few tracks.
Noir continued to perform in New Orleans into the 1980s, still performing with Ellis Marsalis and then-teenage Marsalis student Harry Connick Jr. He was also the drummer on the 1982 Marsalis Family album Fathers and sons.
Noir died August 30, 1988.
In 2002, the Night Train label put together a compilation of mostly unreleased tracks, many Noiraborted LP sessions. I Need Altitude: Rare and unreleased New Orleans Jazz and Funk, 1968-1978 spanned the gamut from heavy funk and psychedelic soul to soul-jazz, and included many of the drummer’s own vocals. In the spring of 2003, Ellis and Wynton Marsalis presented a program of black compositions as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series.
For more information on NOJO and the New Orleans Jazz Market, go here.